Alpacas and Obstacles

Alpacas and Obstacles

Arts and crafts provide some of the most reliable fodder for high-quality microEXCURSIONS. Of course, the great museums of Washington and Baltimore are choc-o-block with world-class art. But urban centers aren’t always the best places to find crafts.

In DC, you can count on the Renwick Gallery to host extraordinary exhibits from some of the most skilled craftspeople in the country. And on a somewhat more accessible level, the annual craft festivals held by the American Craft Council at the Baltimore Convention Center and the Smithsonian Institution at the National Building Museum always have a little something for everyone.

But you don’t have to wait around for major festivals in the big cities to get your craft fix. There are all kinds of festivals and craft-related events out in the countryside or in small towns around Maryland and Virginia.

Because Dawn is a weaver, we lean toward festivals with a textile focus. The biggest is the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, held each spring at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Unfortunately, we missed the 2022 festival due to heavy rains, and the previous two years it was cancelled because of COVID.

So, we were delighted when we discovered that the  would be holding its annual Alpacas and Fleece Festival in November — once again, at the Howard County Fairgrounds. As textile people know, alpaca’s produce some of the softest and strongest fibers.

Maybe as important, alpacas are unusual and astonishingly beautiful animals. Just knowing that we would be able get up close to them, and perhaps even run our fingers through their extraordinary wool, was probably incentive enough to hop in the car early on a Sunday for the long drive north.

Also, last spring, we attended one of the first meetings of the Chesapeake Fibershed, a group of farmers and textile artists promoting a regional fiber system. Their goal is to make it possible to process, design, and create textiles using animal and plant fibers and natural dyes grown here in the Chesapeake watershed.

The daughter of one of the farmers attending the meeting brought along her alpaca. It was one of our first opportunities to get close to this strange American camel.

We were smitten.

We were also intrigued when the young woman told us that she and her alpaca participated in obstacle course competitions similar to those for dogs. A quick glance at the brochure for the Alpaca and Fleece Festival revealed there would be competitions in both the senior and junior divisions.

“Sold,” we said.

So, let’s get this fact out of the way: An alpaca is no sheltie. They may be nimble in the high Andes of South America, their home turf, but they’re pure klutzes on the obstacle course.

They’re also ornery. They clearly didn’t see the point of hopping over stiles or weaving between pilings. And they took particular affront at one stage of the course that required them to move backwards through a simple maze.

You could see a kind of pleading desparation in the eyes of their young handlers as they tried coax the recalcitrant alpacas to complete the course. (It’s worth noting, by our not entirely scientific calculation, young girls make much better alpaca herders than young boys.)

But the obstacle course was a good opportunity to see these magnificent animals from different angles. As they stepped up to the starting line, we got a good view of their long necks and shaggy heads. Even if they were oafs in motion, they were elegant animals standing still.

And, like all camels, alpaca’s have large beautiful eyes.

They gave their handlers nothing but trouble, and they often stood forehead to forehead as the young shepperds tried to coax the obstinate alpacas around the course. But it may have been worth it just to stare into those giant eyes.

But the main event at the fair isn’t the obstacle course. It’s the vast collection of vendors, breeders and demonstration booths gathered in the barns of the fairgrounds. That, of course, is what Dawn came for.

There were vendors selling yarn for knitters, fleece for spinners, and dyes for dyers. There were beautiful handmade scarves, and sweaters, and socks by the score for sale. Dawn bought a pair of lovely, cable-backed fingerless gloves from Flame Pool Alpacas and skeins of yarn from half a dozen vendors.

And, because these are all people tied to the same craft, conversation flowed easy. These are typically country folk who are happy to tell you all about their flocks of alpaca, sheep, and goats. They’re even happier to talk about their craft. You can learn a lot about knitting or spinning or felting at an alpaca show.

But what you really get is up and close with those marvelous alpacas. They’re gathered in twos or threes in the stalls of the barns, and if you press up to the rails, you can get eye-to-eye with them, just like a shepherd. They’re a little skittish, given the crowds, but they’ll often let you rub their necks or tossle the unsheared lock of wool on the top of their heads.

Sometimes, the alpaca owners will sell you a handful of grain to feed them. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like looking into those big camels’ eyes while they eat out or your hand.

Dennis Hollier

Dennis Hollier

Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.

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